Jewish Humor and Anti-Semitism


Jewish Humor and Anti-Semitism
Source: DIF
Ernst Lubitsch in "Der Blusenkönig" (1917)

"It has often been said", remarked Ernst Lubitsch in 1916 — the same year his "Schuhpalast Pinkus" (Shoe Salon Pinkus) was made — "that films set in Jewish milieus are offensive. This position is simply unbelievable. Should such a film prove displeasing, then that is due entirely to a mode of presentation that simply does not 'get' the essence of Jewish humor, in which case the filmmaker should simply leave the matter be; or else it is due to inappropriate exaggeration, which would be detrimental to any artistic effort and its desired effects. Jewish humor, regardless of where it turns up, is appealing and artistic, and it plays such an all-around important role that it would be ridiculous for filmmakers to ignore it."

Anti-Semitism Before 1933

Lubitsch was not only declaring his own personal position as an actor and director, that is, as "a representative of the German comedy"; he was giving voice to the experience of a society. Born in Berlin in 1892, he was no stranger to anti-Semitism, which was a reality in Germany long before the transfer of power to the Nazis in 1933. In the year of Lubitsch's birth, for example, the German Conservative Party pledged itself "to the fight against the aggressive and demoralizing Jewish influence on the life of our nation." Thirteen years earlier, the influential historian Heinrich von Treitschke concocted a sentence that proclaimed the mood of the Wilhelmine period and became a murderous slogan of the Third Reich: "There is a cry that resounds today as with a single voice, even in the most highly educated circles, amongst men who would reject with horror the least notion of religious intolerance or national pride: the Jews are our misfortune!" Hate speech against Jewish citizens became more common following the First World War; according to the racist logic of anti-Semitic propaganda, Jews were slandered as carriers of baser personal and "racial" qualities. Such propaganda was accompanied by the defamation of leftists and democrats, the representatives of progressive thought in the newly founded Weimar Republic. People referred to the new state as the "Jewish Republic" and and called its modern, cosmopolitan capital as "Marxified, Jewified Berlin". In its 1920 party platform, the German National People's Party (DNVP) pledged to fight the "hegemony of Jews in government and public life"; and in the same year the "German National Protective and Defensive League" (Deutschvölkische Schutz- und Trutzbund) distributed over seven million leaflets with racist and anti-semitic slogans.

The Herrnfeld Theater and Ernst Lubitsch

Source: DIF
Siegfried Arno and Erika Glässner in "Familientag im Hause Prellstein" (1927)

In the Jewish population the experience of anti-Semitism led to a critical debate over comedic forms of self-representation. At the turn of the century the theatrical style of the brothers David Donat Herrnfeld and Anton Herrnfeld was so successful in Berlin that they moved their by then famous Herrnfeld Theater into its own 800-seat auditorium. When Max Mack filmed the Herrnfeld play "Endlich Allein" (Alone At Last) in 1913, the two brothers played the lead roles. The brothers' brand of comedy was based primarily on stereotyped figures that — like the businessman Simon Dalles, the clever Dovidl Grün, or Moritz the clothier's apprentice — were received as self-caricatures taken from everyday Jewish life. Alongside enthusiastic reviews (one written by Kurt Tucholsky, for example), there were other, more critical voices, such as the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens), which in its organ Im deutschen Reich warned of the dissemination of anti-Semitic clichés. "This is why the anti-Semitic press promotes every play staged by directors Anton and Donat Herrnfeld", the association explained in 1902. The Israelitische Familienblatt in 1904 condemned the "reciprocal anti-Semitic backscratching" by which "the Herrnfeld Theater earn[ed] the praise of anti-Semitic newspapers and the papers earn[ed] advertising fees from the Herrnfeld brothers." The Jüdische Rundschau in 1908 feared that the "mindless shenanigans" on stage would only give the "blond giants" in the audience the impression that "Berlin's Jews really are not worth the powder and shot." The Lubitsch comedies "Der Stolz der Firma" (The Pride of the Company) and "Schuhpalast Pinkus" (Shoe Palace Pinkus), which were undoubtedly influenced by the Herrnfeld Theater, also contributed to this tense situation, which was further fueled by Lubitsch's self-ironic performances as Sally Pinkus and Siegmund Lachmann respectively. On the one hand, one has to wonder whether such commerce with clichés only provided more fodder for extant anti-Semitism — Lubitsch himself, for instance, along with his characters, was denounced by the Nazis as "degenerate" and as the epitome of "Jewishness". On the other hand, one might also think of such self-irony on both stage and screen as a modern and self-confident approach to Jewish tradition, one that uses strategies and conventions considered to be "Jewish humor". As the film critic Frieda Grafe wrote, "What these films have in common with Jewish humor is that in them Lubitsch is poking fun at himself rather than at others."

Traditional Self-Irony or Modern Defamation?

Source: DIF
Scene from "Familentag im Hause Prellstein" (1927) with Anton Herrenfeld (2nd from the left) and Erika Glässner

The explosive and complex nature of this issue is reflected in particular ways in the reactions to the 1927 screen adaptation of the Herrnfeld comedy "Familientag im Hause Prellstein" (Family Day at the Prellsteins), which was first staged in 1905. The director was Hans Steinhoff, and the lead roles were played by popular comedians of Jewish background, such as Paul Morgan, Siegfried Arno, Ilka Grüning, and Szöke Szakall; Anton Herrnfeld himself also played a part. This story about Samuel "Sami" Bambus, his wife Flora née Birnbaum, and cousin Prellstein was described in 1927 by the critic Georg Herzberg as a successful and by no means discriminatory version of a "Herrnfeldiade". Herzberg viewed "Familientag im Hause Prellstein" as a "clean film" set in an urban milieu, one "you can have a few hearty chuckles over and whose viewers, apart from the hopeless antisemites, will find a pleasant diversion from Heidelberg, the Rhine, and operettas." The same year, however, the Reichsfilmblatt, as the official organ of the Reich Union of German Movie House Owners (Reichsverband deutscher Lichtspieltheater Besitzer), published a critique fraught with anti-Semitic stereotypes. It termed the film a "milieu study": "An amusing study, no more, a film about petty and petty-minded people, for whom ideas about destiny, the tragic, and having a world view are remote and foreign. […] Quite revealing, Paul Morgan and Siegfried Arno as genuine Jewish types." The reviewer acknowledges the director's achievement, but finds that it does not make the film any less an endeavor "about something which is in fact — nothing." Debates over the dissonance of Jewish humor and anti-Semitic stereotypes on stage and on screen continue until today. They are not only an important aspect of film history, but shed light on German history. Such discussions allow us to trace the principal problem of stereotypes and dominant fictions — namely, that they have the power to shape perceptions.